Heidrick perspectives: The impact of digital on marketing and communications roles

Heidrick perspectives: The impact of digital on marketing and communications roles

Heidrick & Struggles’ leaders of the communications; marketing, sales & strategy; and digital officers practices sit down to discuss the blurring lines between their areas of expertise and how organizations should take on their search for talent.
John Abele
Jean Allen
Kristin Deutmeyer
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In this episode of the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Jean Allen sits down with John Abele and Kristin Deutmeyer. Together, they discuss the blurring lines between leadership roles in communications, marketing, and digital functions and how organizations should take on the search for talent.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Jean Allen: Hi, I'm Jean Allen, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and the head of our communications practice. In today's podcast, I'm talking to two of my colleagues, John Abele and Kristin Deutmeyer. John is Heidrick's global managing partner of the Marketing, Sales & Strategy Officers Practice, and Kristin co-leads our digital officers practice.

Today, we've come together to talk about the blurring lines between our respective functions and what that means for companies as they try to decide what capabilities their leaders will need to build as well as how they can protect their reputation and brands. We’re coming to this discussion with different perspectives from our respective areas of expertise, but interestingly, those areas are not as different as they used to be. So, to get started on that note, I'd love to ask my colleagues: what do you think is causing this blur between our respective areas? 

John Abele: Jean, it's John. I'll jump in first on that, if I could. There are a couple of things I've seen through this continued blurring of roles and responsibilities. First, I think, [one of the reasons for the blurring and one of the things I’m seeing] most commonly is the prevalence of technology. We've all seen the advancements of technology over the last 20 years since the advent of all this logging online for the first time. But today, technology is become so woven into the fabrics of our [corporate] roles. Therefore, as technologies become more part of the fabric of what each person is doing, it's less of a separate amplifier that can be parked out on the side to be recruited for separately. It's now part of everyone's job. So, I think that is probably the first and biggest aspect [of the phenomenon.] The second thing I would add—what I think is transforming many industries—is that customer expectations continue to rise. Customers are not stagnant; there is no status quo. Customers are seeing more and more of what's possible and they are demanding it and wanting it. And so I think that that increases the demands on each leader who’s out there trying to respond to those demands in various shapes and forms. And it’s causing these leaders to be much more creative and agile than ever before. And, lastly, I would say that private equity has become such a predominant force, pushing very hard in a lot of industries and a lot of sectors for more responsibilities to be concentrated into fewer leaders. They're trying to pack more into one bag, if you will. They like to have (as I would like to term it) a single neck to choke, if they need to come back. And so, oftentimes they want to combine responsibilities around marketing and digital communications and even sales under one leader to really have that one person be the point of contact for all the issues, concerns, and any challenges going forward.

Kristin Deutmeyer: Totally agree. I mean, [about] the technology and the data that lies underneath this. And I think the simple answer, and John, you said this, is the customer, right? I think sometimes CMOs and heads of communications long for easier days. Twenty years ago, 10 years ago, their roles were just very different, and it was a lot more of pushing things out. Now, the customer or the user or the consumer—whoever the end person is—is just demanding so many more things from a brand or from a company. And so, I think just a simple answer [for why the lines between communications, marketing, sales, strategy, and digital] is that it's the customer and the need to meet their demands wherever they are and however they want to receive that type of information or how they want to interact with a brand or an organization.

Jean Allen: I would throw into that the fact that there's so much more pressure on organizations now to take stands on social issues. So put that in the mix as well. And there's just a whole lot going on as you try to think about what kind of leader is needed to respond to all this. 

That leads to something else that I wanted us to talk about, which is that I see companies saying, “I know I need a strong public-facing person to communicate our messaging. Is it a chief communications officer? Is it a chief marketing officer? Is it a chief branding officer? Is it a chief content officer?” The list kind of goes on and on and companies just find themselves sort of overwhelmed with the different ways they could solve their issues but not really knowing which one does the trick. Are you two seeing that, too? 

Kristin Deutmeyer: I absolutely agree. There are so many different titles out there. This is one of my favorite conversations to have with clients, to really get to the heart of the matter of what they actually need. And sometimes you can be oversimplified—take the CMO and the head of communications and consider how those have changed. I think part of it is [due to] the technology that John mentioned, and it's also about the rise of the data that drives all the performance marketing around it. Think of all the consumer internet companies that have been launched in the last 20 years. They're more product-led companies, so marketing wasn't at the forefront like it was at lot of other, more traditional companies. But [these companies] wanted results, and so marketing became more performance driven—but then you can't forget about the brand. So what is the integration of all of those? 

And then look at [what’s been happening in] the last few years, you know, there's just been so much more social uprisings. Consumers are making decisions more and more based on company values and the social issues that they take a stand on—or don’t. And so, that top role, whatever you call it, is becoming more externally facing. And it's not just the steward of the brand; I think it’s also often the face of the brand. And so it has to be kind of this ESG leader on top of everything else. 

John Abele: Kristin, that's a great point. And I think, Jean, to your point, you saw it from the world of communications; Kristin's seeing it from digital; and I'm seeing it from marketing. But, in essence, it's the same problem. It's just so happening to manifest itself in different venues, and probably manifesting itself in venues that are more traditional as opposed to modern, in terms of mindset. So, as Kristin mentioned, in years past, there would be a CMO and there would be a head of communications, and their responsibilities were usually segregated or at least siloed in terms of responsibility. Now, there are all these other added pressures. We've got the technology component that digital brings in. We've got the social issues. We've got customer expectations. We’ve got a multitude of channels over which customers can reach you. And it's just creating this constant churn and constant need for being able to answer the question: how do we solve the problems of tomorrow? But, you know, so many people are trying to answer it with the mindsets of yesterday. Jean, you've seen a lot of this in your world. Why don't you tell us a little bit about how it's playing out with clients and how you’ve worked with clients to help solve the problem? 

Jean Allen: We talk a lot these days about majors and minors. This is because one of the things that I think has been happening in parallel to all these changes is that candidates have been getting broader in their skill sets. So, it's not like companies are looking for a unicorn that doesn't exist. It's more like companies are really looking for, first, how to prioritize what they need and then, second, how to find those people. So that gets us to this majors and minors conversation. What do you need the most? What's the first thing you need? Sometimes when you get that close to the question, [clients] aren’t really sure they know the answer. [In those cases,] I think it becomes kind of a search strategy. So I’ll say, “Let's show you some different kinds of candidates. Let's learn together as we go.” And we'll talk to somebody who's more of a marketing than a comms person, or more digital than they are a CMO. You know, we'll show clients the variations. And sometimes you just learn from talking to people. All of a sudden, clients will say, “Yes! That's what I need.” So it makes for a more iterative search process, I think. But again, that is the nature of the times we're living in. 

Kristin Deutmeyer: Absolutely. I think our slates are becoming more diverse in multiple, multiple, multiple ways. Even with our candidates, there will be a common thread, but you're right, Jean, they might lean toward one area [or another], they might spike in one area and another candidate on the same slate might spike in a different way. And so [our work becomes] this iterative process of really figuring out what is best for that company at that right time.

John Abele: Jean, I think you touched on an absolutely great point. With searches, I've often seen it go two different ways. One way is the client takes a step back or they decide on their own what they need and they describe it to us. But, many times, they're describing what they need in terminology that—we talked about this before—is a bit of the past. So when you get in there and you start doing the search, you realize that it's not fitting what they were really after. So, again, the search becomes that iterative process as you described. 

Other clients for whom I've seen some of this work well [are those that value] a more consultative approach, where you work more up front to really diagnose and understand the problem they're trying to solve. What are the challenges the company is facing? What does the future state look like, and what are the future states of what customers are going to be looking for? How do you use that to create an advantage in the marketplace versus just keeping up? If you can answer those questions, we can help shape the role. And shaping the role is shaping the skills, but it's also, in many cases, shaping the title so that it's attractive to candidates and it's something that people want to come to and best describes what they're trying to achieve. 

Kristin Deutmeyer: Absolutely. 

Jean Allen: That's something I wanted to talk about. Another thing that I'm seeing is that once companies get to their core need—we need a lot of things, but I'll use my own world—so when companies can say, “We need a lot of things, but what we need the most is communications,” [what I’m seeing is that they sometimes] decide that they will still add on these other areas of expertise because they want to attract that kind of talent. [But that talent is] the hardest to move, you know? People that are at the top of their game, are very good, are happy where they are, so it becomes about a compelling proposition. Like, I'm calling you about a communications search, you're a communications person, but guess what? In this role, you'll also do marketing and you'll even have a piece of the digital offering. So companies [use these extra responsibilities] as a recruiting tool. And that's been something we've seen and that's been an interesting trend. I wonder if you're seeing that?

John Abele: I think it's a little bit of, “We're not only this, but we're this plus these.” That plus is meant to be added on to make the role more attractive. The challenge in some of these organizations is that the plus becomes plus and plus and plus and plus, and there are very few unicorns out there that can cover all those areas and do it exceptionally well. So, I don't know, Kristin, if that's something that you've seen? But it seems to me like everyone's looking for that blended milkshake, or unicorn, that may not exist. 

Kristin Deutmeyer: Yeah, and I think, at the end of the day, companies need to hire for the leader that they need, not who they want. And I think that's hard—to really determine where the company is at in their journey in terms of growth or non-growth, you know, wherever they are, wherever their brand is. Is their brand healthy? Do they need to hire for the CMO, the head of comms, the chief digital officer, the chief customer officer? Whatever that is for what they actually need, they can't expect to solve for everything in one person. And so [our jobs are] also just being honest. Maybe the company needs one leader for three years rather than [trying to find talent] for 10 years. That top marketing communications leader has such a short tenure these days that you can't expect someone to be everything for all time. And so companies need to really determine what they need today and what they will need in a year or two. 

And then I think the other thing is that the marketer or the communications person is more and more involved with the board these days. And so companies need to be hiring for strategic vision; someone who can enable a team of experts is also really important because they need to have credibility with the board. They need to be able to take that vision and execute and implement it. And so then hiring all these experts underneath that person becomes important, because you can’t expect that top person to be an expert in all areas. 

John Abele: Kristin, I think you just nailed it. I think that is one of the things that I've talked to many, many clients about is trying to solve for everything in one person is an impossibility. Solve for it in the composite. So to your point, if there's certain elements that are needed now that may be important for now, but may drop off later, hire those as people who are working for the top person as opposed to making sure the top person has to cover everything. Therefore, when you've got leaders today, The most important skill set often isn't even the functional skills. It's the leadership skills. It's that business acumen. It's the ability to manage a very diverse, oftentimes now distantly located team that has a very wide array of skill sets. And so the leadership elements become even more critical than even the functional skill sets in many, many cases. 

Jean Allen: I completely agree with that. I mean, you can go through the whole exercise, figure out what you need most and maybe decide it's a marketing person but end up hiring a communications person or a digital person instead because when that candidate walked in the door, you knew that they could meet the challenge. You knew that they had the agility, that they had the leadership skills. So, I think that's right—I think a lot of these blurring lines situations end up getting resolved because a leader walks through the door and people say, “OK, this person will be able to figure out the complexity of what we're dealing with.”

Kristin Deutmeyer: And I think it goes back to what we said at the beginning: it goes back to the customer. It's that leader who can be the voice of the customer and take that throughout the entire company and always just be the champion for the customer.

John Abele: I think that's right and I think, Jean, to your point, and just in adding what you said, Kristin, back in the days, we were always asked, “Do you want the person who's the expert in the field you're solving for today? Or would you rather have the person who's just incredibly bright, smart, and agile, who will figure out the problems of tomorrow and solve them?” I think it's so much more now about that latter. Hire for agility, hire for leadership skills, hire for the business acumen, and trust that the right person is going to adjust and adapt not only themselves, but the team to solve for the problems of today and adapt to the problems of the future.

So, to your point, Jean, I think it's less about your heritage, whether you’re communications or marketing or digital. It's much more about, now that you've got that as table stakes, what are your differentiators? And I think it comes back to the skills we just discussed. 

Jean Allen: Yes. I know what I'm always looking for in a candidate: high EQ, low ego, an open mind, and the ability to listen. And I think when you work with the kind of complexity that we now expect people to operate in, if you don't have those things, you're kind of cooked. 

John Abele: Agreed. And it's interesting. None of those skills you just mentioned said marketing, digital, or communications. 

Jean Allen: Well, listen, I think this has been great. Thank you both so much for taking the time to do this discussion. 

Kristin Deutmeyer: Thanks, Jean. Did we solve all the world's problems?

John Abele: No, but we know how!

Kristin Deutmeyer: We know people who can do that. 

John Abele: That's right, Jean. Thanks for having us. 

Kristin Deutmeyer: Thanks, Jean.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the participants

John Abele (jabele@heidrick.com) is the global managing partner of the Marketing, Sales & Strategy Officers Practice; he is based in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office.

Jean Allen (jallen@heidrick.com) is a partner in the Chicago office and a member of the Marketing, Sales & Strategy Officers Practice.

Kristin Deutmeyer (kdeutmeyer@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office where she co-leads the Digital Officers Practice. She is also a member of the global Consumer Markets and CEO & Board of Directors practices.

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